26th Jan 2011
In a week of high profile departures that saw Andy Coulson and Alan Johnson both step down from frontline political roles and half the HP board sent packing, Steve Jobs’ leave of absence from Apple was arguably the most intriguing for business commentators because of the many questions it asks about the role of superstar individuals in leading great companies.
To many he is the embodiment of Apple, the man who returned to Cupertino in 1997 to salvage the business that he co-founded in the late 70s.
Since his return, he has transformed Apple from a basket case to the second most valuable company in the world and the poster child for innovation and cool.
But the question that has been puzzling commentators since the short announcement last week is what will happen when he’s no longer in day-to-day control? How reliant is Apple on the man in black?
The FT put it like this:
“How important Mr Jobs actually is to Apple is unknowable today. But its board has created a monster by not reining in the perception that he is the company. Sure, everyone looks clever – and gets rich – when the man in black presents another whizz-bang device. Hopefully not soon, but one day he won’t. This episode is a wake-up call to any company perceived to be hostage to one person alone. Even if it is true.”
Clearly everyone wishes Steve Jobs well but his latest leave of absence raises important questions about the challenge of having such a visible and charismatic leader.
On the one hand, CEOs of successful businesses are the figureheads and the mouthpieces for their organisations – they get the rewards when things go well and the brickbats when they don’t.
But the idea that one person is all seeing and all powerful ignores the fact that most businesses, even start-ups, are team efforts and rarely down to one person’s abilities.
In the UK, Virgin and Dyson would top many people’s lists of Britain’s most entrepreneurial companies, both headed by inspirational business leaders. But both Sir Richard Branson and Sir James Dyson stepped away from the day-to-day running of their businesses several years ago, establishing strong teams to take them on.
Branson handed over the running of Virgin Group to Stephen Murphy, Virgin’s chief executive, and a trusted team of key lieutenants in 2007.
Likewise, Dyson, widely regarded as Britain’s most innovative inventor and engineer, handed over the reins of his business to Martin McCourt, its chief executive in 2001. Since then, Dyson has grown from a £50m UK vacuum cleaner business to a £770m global technology company employing 2,500 people worldwide.
The reality is that Apple is no more a one-man-show than Virgin or Dyson. It has as deep a bench of world class talent as any business, with the British born Jonathan Ive, its principal designer, and Tim Cook, its chief operating officer, forming part of an executive team that will hold the fort as they have during Jobs’ two previous medical absences.
But many business journalists will admit that teams aren’t sexy. Partnerships don’t make good copy. The more interesting story is the one about the figurehead, the inspirational leader, which is perhaps why the likes of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg get more attention than Google’s world beating triumvirate of Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt.
It’s also perhaps why Apple’s stock dipped by 5% last week, wiping $15bn off its stock market value, while Google’s climbed on news that Page would take over from Schmidt as chief executive.
In the UK, the myth of the lone-wolf entrepreneur is a powerful one but the reality is that new ventures are more likely to be team efforts than you may think.
Innocent, Betfair, Ocado are three of the most successful new businesses to launch in the UK in the past decade and each of them were created by start-up teams of two or more. In fact, 40% of UK start-ups have more than one founder according to research commissioned for Global Entrepreneurship Week.
Richard Reed, Innocent’s chief executive and one of its three founders, said in a recent interview that his single biggest tip to anyone thinking of starting a business was to get the team right.
Not the product, the IP or the finance, but the team, and for Innocent in particular, the story of the founding group of three working a fresh-fruit stall at a festival has become a key part of their mythology.
Now that’s not intended to diminish the role of an individual leader. Virgin, Apple and Dyson are unlikely to have flourished in the way they have without the singular talents of their visionary founders. But the current storm around Apple’s succession planning shows the downside of being seen to be so reliant on one person’s talents.
The truth of the matter is that no business is reliant on one person and while Apple’s fans and investors will worry about an Apple without Jobs, he is nobody’s fool and has established a supremely talented team to drive the business forward in his absence. Apple’s challenge is letting the world know it.
Nick Giles is co-founder of the public relations consultancy Seven Hills. You can also follow Nick on Twitter.
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